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Jewish World Review Sept. 13, 2001 / 24 Elul, 5761

Bob Greene

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Quickly as a fickle sky, change in air -- THE skies Tuesday afternoon were what told the awful story.

The skies--which we often barely look at, which we take for granted, like peace, like silence--made the difference.

The skies of fire over New York City, of course--but the broad skies that cover the rest of America, also. The skies that, until Tuesday, were so often permitted to feel invisible.

I walked for two hours along Lake Michigan Tuesday afternoon, and it took most of those two hours before it occurred what was so unusual about those blue Chicago skies.

It was the airplanes.

They weren't there.

Not a single airliner on its way to or from O'Hare. On any other day of the year, you can't escape the sight or sound of them. Even on the cloudiest days, you can hear the buzz up there, the whine. The busiest airport in the world, right here--and those planes filling the sky are as much a part of the pattern of Chicago life as are the elevated tracks, and the neighborhood sandwich shops, and the two baseball teams. Some days we barely look up as the airplanes pass.

No airplanes Tuesday afternoon. Not a one.

So when the roar of a jet broke the silence--a sound that on any other day might not even warrant a glance--dozens of people who also were walking along the lake stopped in their paths. They looked to the sky--alert, wary.

They all knew--all of us knew. The government of the United States had ordered that no airplanes would take off from any commercial terminal in the country. It was an order that had never before, in the history of aviation, been issued. If you'd like a fast definition of terror, that's it. Ground every plane. For fear.

So along Chicago's lake, the eyes stared skyward, as if 60 years of history had been wiped away, and men and women--civilians--had been hurriedly enlisted as air raid wardens. That quickly--that is how quickly everything can change.

We didn't see a thing. The sound was up there--an airplane, only a day before a sound as common as a hollered hello--but none of the eyes on the ground could spot the plane making the sound. And--this I could see--every eye in the vicinity, within moments, shifted in another direction.

Toward the south. Toward the downtown skyline: the John Hancock Center, the Sears Tower.

Just that quickly--what the day before had been points of pride, pinnacles on a picture postcard, Tuesday afternoon were transformed into something else. No one wanted to think the word, much less say it, but the word was in every mind. Quite a word, for tall and pretty tourist attractions:


That's how quickly the world changed Tuesday. How swiftly can it happen? Just as swiftly as it takes to evacuate workers and tenants from a hundred-story building. We've seen the pictures--not fit for any postcard. They, too, were delivered out of the sky Tuesday, to every screen on every television set. Tall and pretty buildings in another city, stretching toward another city's clouds. And then the flames.

We never did locate that solitary plane above Lake Michigan. Was it a military jet, flying reconnaissance, moving so high and so fast that, from the ground, we couldn't discern it? Maybe an escort, as the president of the United States was moved on his herky-jerky journey that started in Florida and touched down in Louisiana and sped west to Omaha before reversing course and hurrying back to Washington?

The people on the ground didn't know. They--we--just knew that by the time the roar of the jet had faded and was gone, the Chicago skyline was still as fine and as solid and as beautiful as it had been five minutes before, and one day before, and 10 and 20 and 40 years before.

The skyline was unchanged--yet everything had changed. It can happen that quickly. The skies above us--in Chicago, in New York, in Washington, everywhere--had ceased to be invisible. The luxury of taking the peaceful skies for granted was, at least Tuesday afternoon, over.

Will we ever go back to the way things were before Tuesday? To skies full of airplanes, and us barely looking up?

Our fathers did. They learned, after a while, after their war, to take the harmless skies for granted.

But, of course, they had come home. They knew that here, in America, the skies would not bring them hurt.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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